1 Timothy 5:23
23 Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.
The use of intoxicating beverages has long been controversial among Christians. Contemporary thinking allows for alcoholic beverage consumption in moderation, claiming that moderation—not total abstinence—is the Biblical model.
Those arguing in favor of moderate beverage alcohol consumption employ several texts in the Pastoral Epistles to justify their position. One of those is the verse listed above.
A question. Does the Bible word “wine” always imply an alcoholic beverage? Those who believe in beverage alcohol consumption believe that the word wine always and without exception refers to a substance with alcoholic qualities. Their position is known in academia as the One-Wine Theory. Those who believe the Bible urges abstinence from alcohol correctly assert that the word “wine” in the Bible refers to either alcoholic or non-alcoholic grape products. Thus, their position is known in academia as the Two-Wine Theory.
In the New Testament, the primary word for wine is the Greek word oinos. It comes from the Hebrew term yayin.
Both the Hebrew term yayin and its Greek derivative oinos refer to the fruit of the vine, whether alcoholic in nature or not.
Numerous Old Testament passages employ the term yayin when the context indicates that the meaning cannot be alcoholic wine:
Jeremiah 40:10—"wine" refers to grapes, not alcoholic beverage.
Jeremiah 40:12—"wine" refers to freshly gathered grapes
Jeremiah 48:32-33—grapes both in the vineyard and winepress (unfermented) are called yayin.
Micah 6:15—the word tirosh (“sweet wine”) is equated to yayin (“wine”). Tirosh refers to freshly squeezed grape juice (used 38 times in the Old Testament). Tirosh always refers to non-fermented grape juice and its byproducts. By equating the two words, the Holy Spirit asserts that the term yayin is a general word that can refer to non-alcoholic grape juice.
At the time of the King James Version translation, the English word “wine” referred to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic products:
Bailey’s New Universal English Dictionary of Words, and of Arts and Sciences (1730 A.D.) gave its primary definition for “wine” as Natural WINE, is such as it comes from the grape, without any mixture or sophistication.
Benjamin Martin’s Lingua Brittanica Reformata, or a New English Dictionary (1748 A.D.) defined “wine” primarily as the juice of the grape.
Clearly, the use of the English word “wine” as a translation of various Hebrew and Greek words does not consistently imply alcoholic content.
For Bible-believers, the “One-Wine Theory” has absolutely no Scriptural merit.
Alright, now let’s consider Paul’s Advice to Timothy
First, notice that whatever the “wine” (oinos—a generic term for either fermented or non-fermented grape juice) was, Timothy was certainly not in the habit of drinking it, and likely was in the habit of total abstinence from that “wine.”
Some contemporary translations emphasize Timothy’s abstinence from “wine:” (These alternative translations are noted, not as an endorsement, but as proof that scholars seem to agree that Timothy’s abstinence from “wine” was total.)
1 Timothy 5:23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) (ESV)
1 Timothy 5:23 No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. (NASB)
1 Timothy 5:23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. (NIV)
1 Timothy 5:23 No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities. (NKJV)
Secondly, notice that Timothy was having stomach problems, likely caused by the water he was drinking. Was there a problem with some water in Asia Minor?
Some scholars believe that the water of Lystra and Ephesus was strongly alkali and could easily upset a sensitive stomach. The Greek construction of the verse makes it clear that the “use” of a “little wine” meant mingling the “wine” with the water to neutralize the water’s alkali level. (Paul was not telling Timothy to switch from water to wine. The instruction is to use wine along with water to correct the medical problem.)
Schirmacher says, “Stomach wine or wine for the stomach, according to the writers of old Greek medicine, was a grape juice prepared as a thick, unfermented syrup for use as a food for dyspeptic for weak persons! Pliny, who lived in the apostolic age, wrote: ‘The beverage is given to invalids to whom it is apprehended that wine may prove injurious.’”
Thirdly, notice that Paul’s advice to Timothy is medicinal. We don’t fully know that this wine was alcoholic….
Alcohol is an irritant to the stomach lining. Would Paul give inspired medical advice that was wrong?
Even if one argues that the wine was alcoholic and that the alcohol purified contaminated water, Paul’s advice is medical—an inspired prescription. No one, therefore, should argue for the consumption of alcoholic wine without a doctor’s prescription!
The “wine” recommended to Timothy was to be taken with the water, not consumed as Timothy’s exclusive beverage.
Remember, Paul had to urge Timothy to “use a little wine,” indicating that Timothy was a total abstainer.
Therefore, whether alcoholic or non-alcoholic, Paul’s advice to Timothy cannot be used to justify the consumption of beverage alcohol any more than one would argue for the use of cough syrup (containing alcohol) as a beverage.
Some Christians argue vigorously for their “right” to consume alcoholic beverages in “moderation.” This so-called “liberty” has become an article of faith for some who refer to total abstainers as “legalists.” Paul, however, had a different take on anything that could cause controversy among Christians.
In I Corinthians 10, Paul summarizes the arguments presented in chapters 8-10. His conclusion is a simple one: Christians demonstrate genuine love for others by abstaining from anything that could cause someone else to stumble or be offended. His declaration of abstinence for the sake of others applies to religious people (Jews), unsaved people (Gentiles), and Christian people (Church of God) (I Cor. 10:31-33).
In other words, genuine love for people and concern for their salvation/growth means I limit myself from anything that might prove injurious to the ultimate goal.
Given Paul’s clear prioritizing of the Gospel and Christian growth, it is wholly incongruous and unscriptural for any serious-minded Christian to argue for the use of beverage alcohol. Once again, the Bible clears up a lot of muddled “scholarship!”